Thursday 17 January: 108km and 300m of climbing

Today was back on the bikes – after all this is supposed to be a bike tour! But after 3 days off we felt both ready and a bit sluggish. We started going through Siem Reap city – now the second largest city in Cambodia. There is far more here than tourism, but tourism is the glue that holds the place together. The sun was just rising as we went towards the East, and we rather enjoyed seeing the day starting for all the locals.

W

e ambled out on the main road to Phnom Penh, with motor bikes, motos, cars and lorries. After about 20km we veered off to a minor road and then picked our way across country for the next 20km or so. It was a mixture of roads with large potholes and dirt tracks. Bernie’s bar bag gave up to an extent – bad design – and we swapped. It is now held on by a bungee cord but this arrangement may not last. One to take up with Wiggle and see if we can get a new one in Phnon Penh.

But the countryside route was slow but delightful. This is a prosperous area, with irrigated fields and diversity of crops. There are lots of people living here, all of whom waved and shouted “hello” as we passed. We were also conscious that this was a major military area in the war to liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Land mines were planted all over the country but especially in this area. 20,000 Cambodians have been killed by land mines since the war ended and thousands more have lost limbs, hearing or suffered other trauma. So the idyllic countryside we looked over as we cycled continues to hold hidden terrors.
Eventually we re-joined a properly paved road. We had done about 40km and it was now about 10.30am and starting to heat up, and the wind was getting up.

The pattern of the days is that it is delightful cycling before about 10.30, with manageable temperatures and little wind. Then, as the heat develops, so the wind gets up. It does not matter which direction we travel; the wind is invariably against us. The next 20km were slightly uphill, against the wind and on bumpy tarmac. All in all, pretty tough going as the temperature climbed to 38 degrees. So we felt it was time for some “kulture” and, in this part of the world, that can only mean another ruined temple. This one was at Beng Mealea. We got our tickets and then ambled onto the site.

This was a contemporary temple to Angkor Wat but not as large (but then nothing is as large as AW). It had been wholly consumed by the jungle but was partially recovered and partially restored. But there were still huge piles of bricks everywhere waiting for an archaeologist to play detective to fit the blocks back together. Seeing temples in this partially unrestored state demonstrates the skill, ingenuity and patience needed to be an archaeologist – as well as the considerable external resources needed for any serious level of restoration work!

There were a few large groups of Chinese tourists in the site, all looking carefully for the best place to get photographed. We saw a documentary on a Chinese Wedding when we were at home – which suggested that the wedding photographers expected to take about 10,000 pictures on the day of the wedding. This group seemed to be up for the “photograph everything – with you in it” challenge. It was almost as interesting looking at them as seeing the ruins; they were all so carefully and beautifully attired, something of a contrast to us (but then they had not been cycling in near 40 degree heat).
There was enough of the temple still standing to show that it would have been magnificent when it was fully functioning. Equally, with it half taken over by the jungle, it was pretty impressive.
After the temple we refiled water bottles and cycled on but holed up for lunch after another 10km. This was home made noodles and cabbage, cooked at a wayside stall, with some “knock your head off” sauce as an accompaniment. The lady who was cooking was jolly and looked at us with a mixture of pity and amusement – not a bad combination in the circumstances. We saw the locals laddling on the “KYHO” sauce as if it was ketchup. We could only mange a tiny amount of the sauce. It cost $1 between the 2 of us for lunch – which seemed to be the standard price. Not surprising that many people here eat all their meals from street stalls as opposed to cooking themselves at all.

After lunch the wind remained strong (and against us), the road rose gently, fell a bit, rose a bit more and the scenery became more like semi-desert scrubland. We plodded on but it was tough. I would not say we did not enjoy it but the achievement may have been better than the immediate experience.
Eventually we rolled into the small town with squiggly writing (small so dubious translation but possibly “Srayong”) where we knew there were guest houses. There are some temples 10km off the main road but, to be honest, we are a little templed-out at the moment so may give them a miss. This is the first of 3 days going East across the north of Cambodia to attempt to reach the valley which contains the River Mekong, before we plan to go south to Phnom Penh and then to Vietnam. However there are a few miles to pedal before then!

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